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Sociology of Skywriting

The Internet as a medium and object of sociological research

by: dr. Albert Benschop, University of Amsterdam

ISA XIV World Congress of Sociology
July 26 - August 1, 1998
Social Knowledge: Heritage, Challenges, Perspectives'
RC35 'Research Committee on Conceptual & Terminological Analysis'
Session 'Social Sciences in the World Wide Web'


Abstract

The Internet is not only a unique communication medium for sociologists but also a peculiar object of sociological research. We are learning to use the Internet as an instrument for communication and information. It does not only transform the way we communicate and gather our information, but it has also changed the way we write and read. Nowadays we can write our thoughts and research findings directly in the sky of cyberspace. At the same time we are trying to get a grip on the Internet as a new form of social interaction, network and community building. A new kind of sociology, or at least a new kind of object of sociological research and theory is developing: cybersociology. CyberSociology is the study of social action of human individuals in virtual communities and networks, organizations and personal relations. These new virtual entities are no longer defined by geographic or even semiotic boundaries. Instead, communities and networks, organizations and personal relations are being constructed in cyberspace on the basis of common affiliative interests.

Cyberspace is an illusion, it is a consensual hallucination that is not anywhere in our physical reality. It is a no-place that exists only within headspace. Cyberspace is something that cannot be demarcated in geographical terms at all. It is a reality that can be localized 'nowhere' and yet its presence is felt 'everywhere'. It is a new form of social reality that is a challenge for sociologists who don't recoil from analyzing such ostensible 'metaphysical' realities. Sociologist are used to thinking that "if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" [W.I. Thomas]. I would like to apply the Thomas theoreme to virtual communities:

The analysis of virtual networks and communities have presented sociologists with considerable problems. The main cause of this is that the conceptual apparatus with which they tackled local networks and communities wasn't and isn't tailored to the decoding of their virtual counterparts. Therefore a number of basic concepts of the sociological tradition are in need of a thorough revision.

In the emerging sociology of cyberspace or netsociology some pertinent questions have to be discussed:

Cybersociology is an inconvenient, troublesome discipline. We have to shoot at fast moving objects with a permanently changing character. It can be compared with the problems of earlier days when new continents were discovered. Suppose that, more or less by accident, you discover that there exists a new continent and you put the first foot on this unknown territory ('a small step for a man, but a big step for mankind'). However, you don't know precisely what you have discovered: what does the territory look like, what are the possibilities and limititations for cultivation, what are you going to do and what do you have to abstain from, and whose territory is this anyway? These are the kinds of questions that have to be solved in cybersociology. The answers will come up, but only if we are able to find some well-defined questions.

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Amsterdam, March 1998